Monday, October 25, 2010

Who Were They?

During the summer, on one of my walks through Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I wandered into a store called Junk, which has since closed. It was a cheerful place but its name was not inappropriate — the stock ran to old furniture, mismatched china and trays of old silverware. On one table a large box overflowed with Kodachrome slides, apparent castoffs from people's vacations. Nearby another box held portraits of long-gone people. The fact that these were formal portraits made me think these people had been important to someone once. I wondered how their photos came to be abandoned. In the end, I picked out two and brought them home.

I can't decide how old this young man is, but he's young. He's standing on a dirt path, but he seems proud of himself. He's planning to go places; just look at that stare.

And then there is this dear little person with her tiny boots and basket of flowers. I hope she had a chance to grow up and grow old, but she worries me. How did she end up among the junk at Junk?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Happened to the Golden Rule?

It's a simple concept: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What happened to that idea?

It's a question that crossed my mind when I thought about the two special days that converge on October 20th: the National Day on Writing, created a year ago by the National Council of Teachers of English to celebrate writing in all its forms; and LGBT Spirit Day, created less than a month ago by a teenager named Brittany McMillan to honor gay and lesbian teens who have taken their own lives.

We live in a time of mean-spiritedness. Politicians point their fingers at scapegoats — Mexicans, Muslims, gays and lesbians, atheists. Bullying voices try to silence dissent. Snarkiness masquerades as cleverness when it's really just meanness in a clown suit. Text-messages and Facebook pages become convenient media for bullying and humiliation.

Everywhere we turn, we see someone trying to make someone else feel inadequate and unloved. We read about teenagers who literally have been harassed to death for being gay and what seems to be an increase in assaults and murders of gay men and women. And it doesn't stop there. Last week I read the shocking story of Kathleen Edward, whose neighbors harassed her on Facebook and paraded a coffin in front of her house; Kathleen is seven years old and dying of Huntington's Disease. A New York Times article, "The Playground Gets Even Tougher," describes kindergarteners harassing one another, in some cases with the approval of their evidently sociopathic parents.

I don't know about you, but I'm sick of it. New York City's anti-terrorism task force uses this slogan to encourage people to report suspicious behavior: If You See Something, Say Something. Let's adopt it for person-to-person terrorism, too. If you see or hear someone being mocked or harassed, use your words for good: Say something. I will, too.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Poem About Everything

It's been a while since I posted a poem. This one is by Wislawa Szymborska, the Poet Laureate of Poland and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. Her new collection is titled Here (© 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It is so wonderful that several times while reading it I've wanted to jump out of my chair and...continue jumping. This is one of the poems that made me feel that way. Perhaps you'll jump up, too.

A Hard Life with Memory
by Wislawa Szymborska
(translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)

I'm a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don't,
step out, come back, then leave again.

She wants all my time and attention.
She's got no problem when I sleep.
The day's a different matter, which upsets her.

She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly,
stirs up events both important and un-,
turns my eyes to overlooked views,
peoples them with my dead.

In her stories I'm always younger.
Which is nice, but why always the same story.
Every mirror holds different news for me.

She gets angry when I shrug my shoulders.
And takes revenge by hauling out old errors,
weighty, but easily forgotten.
Looks into my eyes, checks my reaction.
Then comforts me, it could be worse.

She wants me to live only for her and with her.
Ideally in a dark, locked room,
but my plans still feature today's sun,
clouds in progress, ongoing roads.

At times I get fed up with her.
I suggest a separation. From now to eternity.
Then she smiles at me with pity,
since she knows it would be the end of me too.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Autumn, in the Air

“A sky as pure as water bathed the stars and brought them out.”
 ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A little confession: I am obsessed with the sky. This is nothing new; thirty years ago, when I was thinking about moving to my then-dodgy neighborhood, I turned a corner, looked up and saw this. I was sold.

No matter how many times I see it, the way the sky opens up above New York City thrills me. I can't stop taking pictures of it. It elevates even the roughest architecture to something approaching elegance. Look at this jumbled scene — a squat commercial building and part of the Queensboro Bridge are in the foreground, with two of Manhattan's less distinguished towers beyond. Somehow, the sky pulls it together the way some people can pull an outfit together with the perfect accessory.

Below are some photos I took today — the sky as seen from the walkway of the Pulaski Bridge, which connects Queens to Brooklyn.

This is the view to the south, toward Brooklyn. The huge sky helps me remember that out there beyond the far side of Brooklyn is the continental United States.

The wind was making it hard for me to hold my camera still. You can almost feel it when you look at the clouds' sharply defined strata.

The Empire State Building dominates the view to the west, where the clouds were gray and heavy today.

Do you see the tiny plane? I didn't until I looked at this on my computer.
who knows if the moon's 
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky — filled with pretty people?
~  e. e. cummings

Friday, October 15, 2010

What If There Were No Clean Water?

The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Water"

Today is Blog Action Day 2010, when bloggers around the world focus on the massive, poorly understood crisis of insufficient clean drinking water. The goal is to start conversations that will lead to solutions. This video explains what it's all about.

    Blog Action Day 2010: Water from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

    Globally, almost a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Every week, 38,000 children die from a lack of clean drinking water and other unsanitary conditions. Meanwhile in the developed world, where we take our showers, brush our teeth and wash our dishes with the simple turn of a faucet, it's easy to pretend the water crisis is someone else's problem. Increasingly it is ours, too.

    In the U.S., average water consumption has declined from a peak of 2,000 gallons a day per person in 1975 to about 1,400 gallons today. But as the Circle of Blue website points out, that's not the trend in states including California and Florida, where rising demand is pushing scarce supplies to the limit. Water shortages have also challenged agriculture in the Colorado basin, and Scientific American reports that the Ogallala Aquifer in the high plains, which supplies water for approximately 20% of the U.S. agricultural harvest, is drying up.

    As I learned last year while working on a project for Pace University's Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Sciences, the problem is also right in my own New York State backyard. Beyond the legacy of chemical, industrial and household pollutants still plaguing this state's rich system of rivers, lakes and watersheds from past abuses, our water supply is being damaged right now by chemicals from gardening supplies, road salt and other unregulated runoff.

    The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Watersheds page leads to disturbing facts like these about the Delaware Watershed, which supplies much of New York City's drinking water: While 53% of the rivers in the Delaware Watershed are in good condition, 54% of the lakes are in poor condition and 45% haven't even been adequately assessed. The Lower Hudson Watershed is in far worse shape, with 55% of lakes and 100% of estuary waters rated in poor condition. The state's lack of a coherent, uniform set of water management regulations makes improving the situation difficult.

    Want to help?
    I came to you one rainless August night.
    You taught me how to live without the rain.
    You are thirst and thirst is all I know.
    You are sand, wind, sun, and burning sky,
    The hottest blue. You blow a breeze and brand
    Your breath into my mouth. You reach—then bend
    Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
    You wrap your name tight around my ribs
    And keep me warm. I was born for you.
    Above, below, by you, by you surrounded.
    I wake to you at dawn. Never break your
    Knot. Reach, rise, blow, Sálvame, mi dios,
    Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, Break me,
    I am bread. I will be the water for your thirst.

    ~ Benjamin Alire Saenz, "To the Desert"

    Saturday, October 9, 2010

    The Unbearable Awkwardness of Dying

    Tell all my mourners
    To mourn in red —
    Cause there ain't no sense
    In my bein' dead
    — Langston Huges, "Wake"

    Last Saturday my friend Pat and I went to see Atul Gawande, the gifted surgeon and New Yorker writer, talk about the difficulty we have developed confronting the idea of death. Dr. Gawande's focus is the medical establishment, which is so consumed with prolonging life that it has forgotten how to deal with dying. His New Yorker article on the subject, "Letting Go," is filled with difficult truths all of us need to consider — click here to read it.

    In the week since I heard him speak, my mind has been preoccupied with Dr. Gawande's insights, and I will write about what he said in the next few days. But today my thoughts have turned to more personal memories of death and dying.

    When I was a little girl some families, including my family, believed young children were to be protected from news of death. And so it was that when my maternal grandmother died, no one told me about it. I was about four then, and it was summertime. We were at our beach house, and Granny McMeel was missing. My sister Terry and I were told she was visiting another of her four daughters, but when we returned to our winter home, she wasn't there either. This was the woman who had taught me to read by reading to me almost every night, usually from Peter Pan; now, like Peter and Wendy, she was gone. Out the window.

    We moved to a new, bigger house later that year. One day I noticed Granny's cedar chest — that's what everyone called it, "Granny's cedar chest" — in our new basement. I began having bad dreams. Lying in my bed late at night when the house was dark and quiet, I was certain skeletons like the ones in old black-and-white cartoons were jumping up out of Granny's chest and running through the halls and up the stairs. I heard their bones playing like xylophones.

    And then I was 11. My parents were vacationing in Florida and my sister Betsy, a newlywed expecting her first child, was looking after Terry and me. I was home from school with a cold, lying on the rug in our upstairs den in front of the old black & white Magnavox television, when Betsy walked in with her arms open and tears streaming down her face. She reached down for me and said, "Daddy died."

    It was a terrible mess. On the day my father died, snow started falling. It was the March 1960 Nor'easter, said to be the worst storm since the blizzard of 1948. Most of the  East Coast was quickly locked down. My father's body made it onto the last plane out of Fort Lauderdale, but my mother couldn't get a flight. I tried to imagine my father alone in a box in the cargo hold, but it made no sense. And then there was the matter of my mother. Would she make it to New York in time for the funeral? We worried and whispered and said how good it was that dad's sister and her husband were there in Florida with mom. Meanwhile, aunts and uncles who knew about such things made arrangements — choosing the funeral home and the coffin. I remember people thoughtfully and carefully selecting the clothing dad would wear in his coffin. He was always a dandy.

    For this death I was allowed to go to the funeral home. My father was a popular man with seemingly hundreds of friends. The funeral parlor was so filled with flowers that I thought I would choke on their aroma. In my family's Irish Catholic tradition, the dead are placed in open coffins unless there's a compelling reason to keep the lid closed. It is said that viewing the body helps us accept death, making it clear that body and soul have gone their separate ways. And truly, there was no way to pretend that this body, with its face heavily powdered and lips stitched together, still housed the warm, loving man I called my father. Even in retrospect, confronting the cold reality of death really was better than being told nothing.

    In the end my mother did make it home for the funeral. After the burial, a few dozen people — most of them family — came to our house for a typical Irish Catholic wake with lots of eating and drinking, storytelling and laughter. Later, after the mob had departed and the quiet settled on us, we began the lonely work of living our strange, empty new life.

    The two old, simple problems ever intertwined,
    Close home, elusive, present, baffled, grappled.
    By each successive age insoluble, pass'd on,
    To ours to-day — and we pass on the same.
    ~ Walt Whitman, "Life and Death"